This vivid production of Sophie Treadwell’s remarkable 1928 play will no doubt get Tony nods for its breathtaking design. Set designer Es Devlin takes very seriously the brutally mechanical expressionism that surges throughout Treadwell’s text. Devlin gives us an imposing mechanical box which we first see as an unnervingly shuddering subway car, but which then ominously rotates to reveal all of the other settings in the play.
Lighting designer Jane Cox takes things further still, showing us a New York lit by forbidding sparks of electricity. Shadows and light pay no attention to our expectations, highlighting devices and body parts almost at random. The design team follows Treadwell’s writing scrupulously, creating seriously unsettling transitions, but then favoring a warmer naturalism in Machinal‘s more subdued and humane scenes.
Inspired by the 1927 murder trial of one Ruth Snyder, Machinal follows a nameless Young Woman (Rebecca Hall), an alienated and neurotic person in an acceleratingly mechanistic world. The play takes a proto-feminist look at the dangers that come from treating people, especially women, as mere cogs in a machine.
Director Lyndsey Turner has calibrated this production with unsparing attention to detail, making sure we always feel for the Young Woman’s predicaments as she veers into desperation and close to madness. Hall is very helpful on this front, portraying an immensely sympathetic woman who unquestionably doesn’t deserve the hand that life has dealt her.
Machinal, especially as directed by Turner, is a totally compelling evening of theatre that leaves an audience with a great deal to chew on. Is it a masterpiece? Certain gaps in storytelling and the occasionally forced quality of the expressionism keep it from that august realm. It is undoubtedly, though, a thoughtful and important play that still speaks to us in an immediate and vital way. And that’s plenty!
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